Will Mali emerge from its mire if the junta steps down?

A Malian soldier leaps over a wall as another stands guard on 3 April 2012 at the Kati military camp near Bamako

Mali, a country widely regarded as a model of development and democracy in West Africa, now finds itself in existential crisis.

Such has been the speed of the rebels' advance across the north that a demoralised and crumbling military effectively gave up main towns with only token resistance.

And in Bamako the junta that took power on 22 March, headed by Captain Amadou Sanogo, has promised to return the country to civil constitutional rule - but without saying when.

So where does Mali go from here? Partition, deepening conflict, economic collapse? Or can peace, consensus and economic recovery be restored?

Double-edged sword

The West African body Ecowas has opted for an uncompromising stance: It has imposed sanctions with immediate effect until the junta steps aside to make way for civilian rule.

Besides freezing the assets of the putschists, its neighbours are closing all borders with Mali.

A car transporting goats is pictured on a street in Bamako on April 2, 2012. One of the world's poorest countries, Mali could be crippled by the current crisis

Key imports, such as flour and fuel, can always be smuggled over porous borders or brought in via Mauritania, even if the route is lengthy and insecure.

But the decision to cut off funds by the BCEAO, the central bank of the common regional currency, the CFA franc, will have an immediate impact.

A similar measure was applied against former President Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast early last year - rapidly resulting in a near-total paralysis of the banking and payments system.

Such tactics could prove a double-edged sword, however - boosting support for the junta if Malians feel victimised by the Ecowas and BCEAO hard line.

Ecowas leaders will be hoping that the sanctions prove to be an effective short-term negotiating tool, prodding Capt Sanogo and his colleagues into accepting the rapid implementation of a return to constitutional rule.

map showing Tuareg areas

The vast bulk of Malian political parties have united against the coup and indicated they could use their control of the national assembly to pass an amnesty for the putschists if civil rule is soon restored.

The final element would be the installation of the parliamentary speaker, Dioncounda Traore, as interim head of state until the country could hold the presidential election, the first round of which had been due to take place on 29 April.

No-one seems to favour a return to office for the deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure, nicknamed ATT, who was due to retire after the election anyway.

ATT's credibility had already been wrecked by his handling of the northern crisis.

Fairly or not, many Malians believe he failed to take a sufficiently tough line in the north, particularly when Tuareg former members of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces returned from Libya late last year.

Mr Toure also seemed to fail to treat with sufficient gravity the grief and anger of the families of soldiers massacred by rebels at Aguelhok, in the Sahara, in January.

Desert warfare?
MNLA fighters, photo from the MNLA's website The MNLA rebels have talked of declaring an independent northern republic within days

So a plausible route back to civil political rule in Bamako is on offer, the question is whether Capt Sanogo and his colleagues are really interested in taking it.

Many West Africans are already starting to draw jokey - and sometimes also serious - comparisons with the Guinean military ruler Moussa Dadis Camara.

He who came to power in December 2008 as the supposed overseer of a rapid path to civilian rule - but soon acquired a taste for power himself, before being critically injured and invalided out of office less than a year later.

The next few days will be a key test of goodwill.

And even if an internationally recognised constitutional government does take office in Bamako, it then has to decide how to react to the rebel control of the north.

What are the prospects for northern regions now controlled by a fissile assortment of Tuareg rebel forces and Islamist radicals?

At first sight the rebels seem to hold all the cards and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) - apparently led by Tuaregs returned from Libya - has talked of declaring an independent northern republic within days.

The government has lost control of all the key towns in the region - Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, as well as the desert garrisons.

Ecowas says it has a 2,000-strong standby force available.

But the troops are hardly suited to desert warfare and the task of restoring state control over the north would be formidable and probably impossible, even if a few towns were recaptured.

Shared dream?

Negotiations may be the only option - and there may indeed be more to negotiate about than the MNLA would care to admit.

Much of the recent fighting seems to have been the work of Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist group.

Women in Gao carrying pots Not everyone in the north is Tuareg or wants a separate homeland

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - which holds a number of Western hostages - also seems to have been involved.

These groups have a different agenda to the secular MNLA - wanting to introduce Sharia throughout Mali - and there are some reports that the jihadists control one of the two main military bases in Gao.

Finally, the political and social realities of northern Mali have to be factored in.

Much of the population, particularly in Gao, Timbuktu, Niafounke and the other main towns, is black African, largely Songhai and Peul who settled in the the Niger river valley area a long time ago.

They have no interest in Tuareg dreams of an independent mid-Saharan state called Azawad.

And a local militia, the Ganda Isso, is already active, although its leader was recently killed.

A political settlement may soon be negotiable in Bamako, but no obvious early route to northern peace is in sight - and, indeed, all the ingredients for a renewed local conflict in the south of the north are there.

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